Thursday, August 31, 2023

Shadows and Fog

Shadows and Fog (Woody Allen, 1991) When Woody Allen makes a film in the style of Ingmar Bergman (Interiors), it's done in deadly earnest. But, when he takes on German Expressionism, entering the angular world of Lang, Murnau, with a para-nod towards Kafka, it's a comedy. Not quite sure why; maybe he has an affinity towards one stylization and the other he just finds phony, but the different approaches are like, well, day and night. Allen explored that theme—taking the same story and interpreting it as either comedy or tragedy—in Melinda and Melinda, a bit of a mis-fire—but one suspects that the Nordic tradition he buys completely, and completely dismisses the German (God knows why).

Here, the visual is pure dread, but the subject matter is a mixed bag of precision and vagueness, comedy and darkness. Allen plays Kleinman, a passive-aggressive bookkeeper, who is recruited in the middle of the night by a vigilante mob (including David Ogden Stiers and James Rebhorn) to roam the streets looking for a serial strangler.  Being a professional coward, and only dealing well with facts and figures in black-and-white, Kleinman is ill-suited for the activity and begs off, inviting suspicion from the group. When there is speculation that maybe he won't do his duty as a citizen because he might be the strangler, Kleinman caves.
On his dark journey through the city streets (the largest set ever built in New York's Kaufman-Astoria Studios, making this Allen's most expensive film), he runs across an all-star cavalcade of slothful potential victims: a philosophy student (John Cusack) with a weakness for prostitutes (among them Lily Tomlin and Jodie Foster, madamed by Kathy Bates), a circus love-triangle tangentially related (with John Malkovich, Mia Farrow and Madonna) and the town coroner (Donald Pleasence), who has a purely scientific interest in the killer.

Kleinman soon realizes that life simply doesn't add up, that a little slippage occurs, especially when it comes to illusion and reality (in the form of a very handy and practical magician named Armstead, played by Kenneth Mars). The film struggles with the dichotomy throughout, as highly contrasted as the black and white photography, never truly meshing, and finally ends, as many of Allen's weaker films—and one of Allen's strongest ones (Hannah and Her Sisters)—do, with a Deus ex Machina
** that buttons everything up inexplicably, leaving no questions but a lot of raised eyebrows.

Which is fine for the purposes of the film, but it's hardly what you'd find in an example of German Expressionism, where the punishment fits the crime...and where things really are in black and white.

* Yes, the film is top-heavy with fine actors (and Madonna), but if you look in the darkened nooks and crannies of the film you'll also find Fred Gwynne, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Josef Sommer, Wallace Shawn, Kate Nelligan, Kurtwood Smith and Philip Bosco. Was this film cast or filmed at a SAG convention?

** Here's a question:  It's a Woody Allen film; Can there be a Deus Ex Machina if there's no Deus?

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Buck (2011)

"From the Horse's Mouth"
"Can't We All Just Get Along (Li'l Dogie)?"

Is it possible, at moments we can't imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together—the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life—and turn them into grief?

What use is grief to a horse?
Equus by Peter Shaffer
©1973 by Peter Shaffer

is a laconic talker, a cowboy who looks like he was born on a horse. As a kid, he was a popular prodigy doing rope tricks, while at home his dad was employing rope tricks of his own, getting drunk and whipping scars into the backs of his kids. When his mother died, and with no one to defend the kids from his abusive father, Brannaman, at the age of 6, thought his life was over...or soon would be. With the intervention of a school coach—Buck wouldn't take his shirt off to shower to hide the whip-marks on his back—the boy and his older brother were delivered into the care of a foster-family and a loving, nurturing environment that emphasized work and value and brought the boy out of the shell the scars had created.
Eventually, through study of a mentor's methods (and because he found some insights on his own from his own damaged childhood) he began employing a method of dealing with "problem" horses, and an alternative to "breaking them" in to saddle riding. Because of his advisory work with novelist Nicholas Evans (and subsequently Robert Redford) on the book and film The Horse Whisperer, he became pegged with that name (and all the false "woo-woo" associations with it), despite the fact that what he does is use animal psychology to build a trust with the horses, rather than having to fight against their fears. It makes the training easier and subsequent behavior less problematic. 
Buck is a documentary that follows the man around while he conducts clinics on "dealing" with horses...but more importantly, their owners. His philosophy is along the same lines as good dog obedience classes..." there are no bad animals, just bad owners."* And usually, he has to show folks what they're doing wrong that freaks their animal out. A lot of it involves restraint—not of the horse, but of the owners and their emotions and fears, which a horse can "read." That's not telling any horse-person anything new. But, it may be new that beating a horse into submission doesn't make it trust you. And Buck Brannaman learned that lesson from his father, and painfully. Subsequently, what he teaches about trust could literally come from the horse's mouth.
It is an inspiring story, not so much that Brannaman can teach these lessons so well—and it took years for him to get over the shyness that his father's abuse had hammered into him—but that his message (and his life) points out that no one is unredeemable, not even an animal—that is, an animal with the right instincts (and...properly fed).
Well, almost. One painful sequence has Brannaman trying to deal with a horse so ornery and uncontrollable that it has been turned into "a predator." As its owner tries to convince the horse into its trailer on its way to be shot, Brannaman finally takes control of the situation. "Don't do anything," he finally says shortly. Then, for a long time, he sternly works with the horse, keeping a distance, his jaw set, until it finally makes its way inside. The camera then follows him, as he wordlessly walks off to his trailer, the set of his shoulders and his silence the only betrayals of his frustration and feeling of hopelessness. It is a powerful scene, made only more so by its quiet and lack of comment.
The End Titles are Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe," a song I've fallen in love with.

* Okay, we're not including Great White Sharks in this, but you don't have to spend too much time in nature to know that the way things work in the big Circle of Life is there are eaters and there is meat, and that "life is red in tooth and claw."  Horses are traditionally on the receiving end of fangs, so they tend to be a little skittish when something tries to jump on its back.  Instinctually, they don't like it much, no matter who's bailing the hay.  Brannaman doesn't "baby" the horses and tuck them in at night, so much as gain their trust, and get 'em used to the idea that "Hey, pal, you got a job to do, so let's make this easy and safe for each other."

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox (Sara Lamm, 2006) I've used Dr. Bronner's pure castile peppermint soap for more than twenty years. It's cleansing, it tingles, and it smells nice. It helps wake one up in the morning, along with the five cups of coffee, the energy drink, and the oatmeal with fruit (and the viewing of errors once your daily review is posted).

But, you can't use it without a more-than-casual look at the label. Where most soap companies might have directions, or ingredients, or, even warnings—such as, "don't drink this stuff, you idiot"—Dr. Bronner's soap bottle is surrounded by a daunting label of small type that contains a rambling, repetitive, almost encyclopedic treatise espousing a unified God theory, and "the Moral A-B-C's." Every inch of the label is utilized, even the margins, completely ignoring the "white space" rule or easy scanning strategies, and invoking Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Thomas Paine, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, Rabbi Hillel, even Carl Sagan in its scatter-shot "All-One" philosophy.

Two things come to mind: his heart's in the right place, though his mind, not so sure; and...should I be using this stuff?
Hey, the soap's great. It's completely natural, organic, non-synthetic, "vegan," and "Fair-Trade." I use it every day, and I've stopped reading the label—there's no warning for eye-strain, only from squirting it into your orbs, even by accident.  Plus, it's in most health-food stores...most stores, in fact, and these things get tested. 
Plus, I like it.
But, the label had me curious. I'd done some research, which was inconclusive, but the news that a documentary, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox, was circulating around the movie-drain allowed me to pop two soap bubbles with one poke. I put in a request at
Netflix...they'd never heard of it. That's okay. They'd never heard of Chaplin, either. A year later, it was available, and when it came in the queue, I snapped it up.

And what a tale it is: Bronner, a German Jew and fifth generation soap-maker whose family died in the Nazi concentration camps, emigrated, made it over to the U.S. and established the first of four soap-making companies, and began developing his personal philosophy. Married four times, institutionalized for a time (in the 50's, he got very loud, ranting at a lecture, and when you hear it in a German accent...well, people get nervous...especially during the 50's), escaping and hiding out in California, where another soap-making venture (out of his apartment!) caught on, and became huge with the counter-culture in the 1960's, who were rather accepting of things "out-there" (as long as you listened to their crazy ideas, too, man).

He had three kids, two of whom died before him, the youngest tours the country delivering lectures about his father,
* and promoting the soap, doing out-reach, and checking outlets. Nice guy, living what he learned from his father about "never judging people," but, in marked contrast, he actually listens as much as he talks (there's an interesting interview with the doctor's last wife, where Bronner is in the background, still babbling away—blind as a bat—and unaware that the camera is no longer on him). 
Bronner's other son built up the soap business, standardized the processing, bottling and distribution, doing it cheaply and in a non-polluting way—no pumps, just gravity—and was utterly disdainful of his dad's "All-One" jazz: for one, it scared off customers, and for two, Bronner would leave the kids for months at a time on his "lecture circuit," the kids often becoming subject to orphanages and foster-homes. Now, the grandsons run the business efficiently, and with even more focus on making the company as green and fair as possible (their salaries are capped, so no one makes more than five times what the lowliest worker makes, and donating a whopping 70% of their net profits to charity).  And they make a LOT of money, bemused by the reputation of their grandfather/creator, who had lots of crazy ideas, one of which worked like gang-busters.

Not unlike Henry Ford.

Lamm's documentary is quirky, gossipy, empathetic, but not afraid to exploit the "woo-woo" side of the story. She also has access to a lot of previously filmed material that gives context to the overall story, that is just weird enough to be an American success story.
Dr. Emmanual Bronner, his soap, and the Universe


* He has a great line in his lectures: "Eccentric geniuses cannot be good fathers...At dinner, he'd be (doing his work), and we'd say, "Dad, we're waiting," and he'd say, "What's more important: eating or uniting Spaceship Earth?"...and, well, he's got you there...."

The reply, of course, is: "Hey, Mr. 'Health,' starving your kids is gonna look GREAT in the papers..."

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Don't Make a Scene (Re-dugs): Up

The Story: Diamonds are a girl's best friend. A boy's best friend is his Mother. So where does that leave the humble cur, which was collectively Man's best friend but has been displaced in both categories?

Up.  Still quite up, in fact.

I was already sold on Up before this scene. Those who have seen it, and with whom I've discussed it always bring up the dialogue-less set-up story to Frederickson's balloon adventure, a scene of such mute sensitivity and sublime dexterity in the animated form, that just the recall of it can cause the misting of the eyes in the most cynical of viewers.* Up manages the requisite miracle of all animated features, which is to enchant the kids and engage the adults—the line "No, that won't work" created a 30 second cascading wave of laughter among the "grumps" in the audience, which was met by a quizzical expression on the up-turned faces of their accompanying charges. 

But, this scene was the cherry on top for me. 

See, I have (well, "had") a dog. A very expressive dog who, though he attempts it on far too many occasions, keeps trying to talk to me. And, I know, that if possessed of such a wondrous device as a talking collar, this is what he would sound like...and this is what he would usually be saying...right down to the snap distraction ("SQUIRREL!!") that would occasionally pre-occupy him.

Now, it is one thing to break down this scene—the introduction  to "Dug" from the movie Up shot-by-shot. But, it cannot come close to the artistry displayed by the Pixar creators—thank goodness a portion of it is on-line for you to see the subtleties: the reflexive hind-leg scratch when Russell pats his lower back; the tail that starts talking before Dug does; the reflective mirroring of expressions to his companions'; the quick-silver reactions to new phenomenon.  These are all accurate anthropomorphic distillations of basic dog body-language. That they are paired with the goofy voice (provided by co-director Bob Peterson) and simple construction sentences provided by the red-blinking "voice-collar" is easily too much of a good thing. But, bring it on.

The speed and movement of this scene I couldn't translate, and too many movements, both subtle and not, fell by the way-side.** But clicking on any of the stills to blow them reveals a wealth of detail; *** the intricate colors of the flora, the goo-gadgetry attached to Russell's back-pack, the intricate pore-patterning on Dug's nose. The deeper down you go with Up, the more is revealed, far more than a one-time viewing could ever encompass. 

Any movie that does that is a gift from its shining wrapping paper on the outside to the invisible sentiment behind it.

Pixar is any movie-goer's Best Friend.

The Set-Up: "You can't take it with you," they say. "Bah!" says life-long balloon peddler Carl Frederickson (Edward Asner). About to be "seniored" out of the precious home he shared with his long-time companion, Ellie, he rigs every last balloon he has to the house for one last adventure: a trip to Paradise Falls that he and his late wife never seemed to have the money or time to accomplish. He has inadvertently brought along Russell (Jordan Nagai), a neighborhood boy-scout trying to earn his last merit badge for "Assisting the Elderly." Now, they've made it to South America, and with the goal of settling the house down near Paradise Falls, the two tramp along a high escarpment, the house in tow.  They've picked another in a series of distractions—a rare, flightless bird—which Russell has named Kevin, and wants to keep, much to Carl's frustration. The balloon's are losing helium, and he wants to make it to the Falls before the House makes its last land-fall. Time is of the essence, but there are always more distractions in a new territory. 


Mr. Frederickson: I see you back there!
Mr. Frederickson: Go on, get away! Shoo! Go annoy someone else for awhile!
Dug: Hey, are you okay over there?
Russell: Huh?
Mr. Frederickson: Uhh...
Mr. Frederickson: Hello?
Mr. Frederickson: Oh!
Mr. Frederickson: Hello, sir! Thank goodness! It's nice to know...
Mr. Frederickson: ...someone else is up here!
Dug: I can smell you!
Mr. Frederickson: What?! You
Dug: I can smell you...
Mr. Frederickson: Hey...
Russell:(chuckles) You were talking to a rock!  Hey! That one...
Russell: ...looks like a turtle!
Russell: Look at that one! That one looks like a dog!
Russell: Errr---augh. It IS a dog!
Mr. Frederickson: What?
Russell: Uhhhh...
Russell: We're not allowed to have dogs in my apartment!
Russell: Hey! I LIKE dogs.
Mr. Frederickson (calling to the voice in the distance): WE HAVE YOUR DOG!!
Russell: Woh!
Mr. Frederickson: I wonder who he belongs to?
Russell: Sit, boy!
Russell: Hey, look! He's trained! Shake!
Russell: Uh-huh? Speak!
Dug: Hi there!
Mr. Frederickson and Russell react in shock
Mr. Frederickson: Did that dog just say "Hi there?"
Dug: Oh, yes!
Mr. Frederickson: RRah!!

Dug: My name is Dug. I have just met you...
Dug: And I love you!
Mr. Frederickson: Uhhh...wa...wha..
Dug: My Master made me this collar. He is a good and smart Master, and he made me this collar, so that I may talk...
Dug: My Master is good and smart!
Mr. Frederickson: It's not possible.
Dug: Oh, it is...
Dug: ...because my Master is smart!
Russell: Ooooh! Cool! What do these do, boy?
Dug: Hey! Would you...(dial click)quero contigo...(dial click) Ah use that collar...(dial click)konishiwa hanishwa...(dial click)to talk. I would be happy if you stopped.
Mr. Frederickson: Russell!
Mr. Frederickson: Don't touch that. It could be...radioactive or something!
Dug: I am a great tracker. My pack sent me on a special mission! All by myself!
Dug: Have you seen a bird?
Dug: I want to find one!  And I'm on the scent.
Dug: I'm a great tracker! Did I mention that?
Kevin runs at Dug and carries him away with a Whump!
Kevin: SQUAWK!
Dug: Hey, that is the bird.
Dug: I have never seen one...
Dug: up close...but...
Dug: ...this is the bird!
Dug: May I take your bird back to camp as my prisoner?
Mr. Frederickson: Yes! Yes! Take it! And on the way, learn how to bark like a REAL dog!
Dug: I can bark. Woof! Woof!
Dug: And here's howling: Arooooooo!
Kevin: SQUAWK!
Russell: Can we keep him, please, please, pleeeeeeeeease!
Mr. Frederickson: No!
Russell: But it's a TALKING DOG!
Mr. Frederickson: It's just a weird trick or something!
Mr. Frederickson: Let's get to the falls!
Dug: Please be my prisoner!
Dug: Oh, please! Oh please, be my prisoner!


Words by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter

Pictures by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (and too many people to count)

Up is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment.
For Smokey
Never forgotten
* I would say that Up is my favorite Pixar film—I've never not enjoyed and admired one, and the story-crafters at that studio only seem to get better with time—but, that place is still held by Ratatouille, which, to me, made a quantum leap in computer-generated story-telling.

** Keeping this one manageable is why I didn't publish it on time last week.  Apologies are due, but this one was worth the wait.

*** The wealth of which, and the examination of such, also delayed publication.